If there is a group of plants guaranteed to pique the interest of even the most avowed botanical novice then surely it is the orchid family. Famed as much for their apparent scarcity as their beauty, some orchids are more common than you might imagine, with lives that are not nearly as charming as first impressions might suggest! Most species (and there are 56 in the UK) are at least partially parasitic, obtaining the nutrients they need to survive from fungi — organisms with which they enjoy a complex subterranean relationship. Not all of Britain’s orchids can be seen in the Wrekin Forest but the area’s varied soil profile and ancient woodland heritage ensures it is rich habitat for a handful of attractive examples…
Perhaps the most widespread UK species, the Common Spotted-orchid grows in many places (including woodland, meadow and heath) and can even become abundant in manmade environments, especially old quarries. If this sounds to you like it would bode well for the Wrekin Forest, then you’d be right — for its distinctive dark green and purple blotched leaves and tapering flower spikes (which range in colour from white and pink to purple… but more of that later) are especially suited to the lime-rich, alkaline soils found here.
Another Wrekin Forest orchid that thrives on disturbed, calcareous soil is the Bee Orchid. It belongs to a group of plants famed for their insect mimicry, which in its case involves utilising velvet-textured three-lobed petals to impersonate a bumblebee. There exists a common misconception that orchids enjoy an exclusive relationship with specific insects but this is very often not the case. Indeed, it seems the Bee Orchid is largely self-pollinating, relying on the wind to catch its dangling anthers and transfer pollen to the stigma.
If the elegant, colourful and elaborate Common Spotted or Bee orchids provide a glimpse of what you might typically expect from this large family of plants, the Twayblades defy such convention. The botanical name for this group is Neottia, meaning ‘nest’, a reference to its members’ tangled rhizomatous root systems (through which they receive nutrients and spread through the forest on vegetative growth). However, what goes on above ground is equally worthy of note. Leafless, with an upright stem, the Bird’s-nest Orchid combines a sickly scent with a deathly appearance! This seemingly moribund trait, the result of a distinct lack of Chlorophyll, necessitates a total dependence on fungi for sustenance. What this does mean is that without the need for light, its yellowy-brown flower spikes can be found in deep shade, regularly frequenting the characteristically thick ground level layer of spent mast and leaves found in beech woodland.
The term Twayblade, meaning ‘two leaves’, describes the pair of appendages that clasp the base of the plant at ground level. On the woodland floor in early spring, they are the first sign of the presence of Common Twayblade. Its small yellow-green flowers are borne on loose spikes and have distinctive forked lips, resembling tiny men… yes, really! With a tolerance for alkaline and mildly acidic soils, it is capable of growing just about anywhere around The Wrekin and, if conditions are right, can form large colonies on creeping roots.
Broad-leaved Helleborine is another common, and potentially invasive, member of the orchid family that can thrive in a wide range of soils but its attractive single spikes of pinkish-red flowers are rare in woodlands overlying limestone. Look out, too, for Violet Helleborine, which is also present in the Wrekin Forest. This late flowering, tall leafy orchid possesses half-nodding pale green flowers with white lips that can sometimes appear tinged with pink. It blooms from mid-July to late August and is a classic plant of shaded woodlands (especially beech) with deep, slightly moist soils.
Many orchids have a distinct tendency to hybridise with one and other, which can make identifying them difficult. There can be great similarities, and huge variations, in colour and appearance within and between different species, so please take the following ‘pin-stickers’ guide as just that!
Common Spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii): Long-lived, perennial herb with distinctive dark green and purple-blotched leaves. Dense flower spikes of variable colour (ranging from white to purple) with typical patternation of lines and dots on the lower lips. Many Marsh Orchids, the family to which this plant belongs, hybridise easily and can be difficult to identify. The UK’s most common orchid, it can grow abundantly in places such as old quarries. Flowers June-August.
Bird’s-nest Orchid (Neottia nidus-avis): honey-coloured Twayblade that gives the appearance of being dead (owing to a lack of chlorophyll). Leafless, with erect stem and spikes of small hooded flowers that have a sickly scent. Widespread but uncommon in the UK, this species avoids conifers and is often found in Beech woodland, where it can become prolific during in warm, wet springs. Flowers May-July.
Common Twayblade (Neottia ovata): long-lived orchid (to 40 years) with yellow-green flowers, borne in loose clusters that have a distinctive forked lip resembling a tiny man! Pale green oval leaves appear flush to the ground in early spring before the stalk has emerged. Growing singularly or within a colony, it is widespread and often abundant but is now thought to be absent from a third of its historical range in the UK. Flowers May-July.
Broad-leaved Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine): Attractive perennial herb with a single spike of drooping flowers that are highly variable in colour, ranging from pale green to purplish-red (they often have a pink and white lower lip and a yellow upper lip with two orange, eye-like blips). Broad, elliptical leaves spread horizontally from the downy stem (which differentiates this species from other helleborines) and become narrower towards the top. Widespread and common, this plant is potentially invasive, tolerant of many soils but rare in limestone woods. Flowers July-September.
Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera): small to medium sized perennial herb famed for its insect mimicry. All Bee Orchids hybridise but this species is notable for its brown, velvet-textured three-lobed lip (with fluorescent green markings) that resembles a bee. Its lilac-coloured sepals are easily mistaken for flowers — which are green and stump-like, appearing either side of the ‘bee lip’. Widespread but localised, this is a plant of well-drained calcareous soils, capable of growing in many habitats (including former industrial land) and readily colonising new sites. Flowers early June-July.
So varied is its geology, every major soil type in Shropshire can be found in Limekiln Wood, making it an excellent place to begin an orchid search. Throughout the area, you’ll find countless evidence of old industrial activity in varying stages of natural reclamation — these sites are often favoured by orchids. They also frequent old quarries of the type found between The Ercall and St. Lawrence’s Hill (which contain many damp areas favoured by fungi) and on the floor of Maddocks Hill (where Common Spotted-orchid sometimes grows abundantly). Conversely, the upland oak and beech woodlands on the slopes of the hills themselves are another place worthy of searching, and the thick layers of mast found in the latter (on the western flanks of The Wrekin) could easily yield a sighting of Bird’s-nest Orchid.
Aside from the five plants highlighted, there are many historical records for other Wrekin Forest orchids not mentioned here. Some species are very long-lived and may persist in a vegetative subterranean state for a number of years. Flowering can be a sporadic activity for orchids. While many are capable of photosynthesising above ground and taking nutrients from several different fungi species, the presence of the latter is often critical to their survival. For this reason, plants that are dug up will definitely die, so, if you do see an orchid, please leave it in the ground where it belongs!